How many times have you reached the end of your week-long vacation only to realize that you’ve just begun to relax and enjoy it? There you are with the perfect structure of a vacation – fun in the sun, easy meals, no deadlines, no time stuck in traffic. Yet, even then, it takes several days to relax enough to start truly enjoying it. Ever wonder why?
Stress and anxiety are the arch-enemies of joy. We simply can’t feel joy when we are stressed and anxious. And our modern life triggers stress and anxiety continuously with its relentless demands, fast pace, and the bombardment of hostility and conflict continuously available through electronics. Non-stop exposure to these stressors stimulates a stress response in our brains and bodies – increased adrenaline, elevated heart rate, slowed digestion, and rapid, shallow breathing. This stress response was intended for short-term reacting to a threat or danger, not as a chronic condition.
The results of chronically experiencing this condition are:
• Inflammation in the body. Chronic inflammation is the precursor to most diseases. "Dis-ease" leads to disease.
• A sense of constant time pressure. How often do you have too much to do and not enough time? This sense of shrinking time causes increased impatience and decreased compassion. The result is often a continuous underlying irritability which quickly erupts into anger.
• Decreased ability to solve problems and remember information. The right amount of stress energizes us and we perform mental tasks better. But too much stress activates more primitive brain parts, and puts higher thinking parts of the brain offline.
• A feeling of isolation that comes from “every person for him/herself.” Being constantly wound tight is experienced in the brain as a threat. Feeling constantly threatened increases our sense of me against the world.
• A pervasive sense of dissatisfaction and, often, failure. Our brains interpret being stressed as “something wrong.” Chronically stressed means chronically something wrong. We feel as if we aren’t quite measuring up.
• Decreased joy because we simply can’t feel joy when we are wound tight, disconnected from others, constantly “under the gun,” and not measuring up.
The good news is that while you can’t control the stress response – it’s automatic – you can control the relaxation response. But to do so, you have to actively relax. You actually have to practice relaxing.
The fastest and easiest way to do this is through your breath. Even one minute of consciously slowing and deepening your breath begins a positive cascade of relaxation responses in your body – lowered heart rate and blood pressure, improved digestion, and decreased adrenaline in the blood stream. If you actively practice consciously breathing – slowing and deepening your breath – you will reverse the unhealthy physical and emotional consequences of the stress response. You can do this in one chunk of time – 5 to 10 minutes a day, or by periodically doing it throughout the day. Try setting an alarm on your phone for once an hour and taking 1 minute to consciously breathe each time it goes off.
If you’re finding that the joys of summer are passing you by, set a goal to consciously breathe every day for 2 weeks and notice the difference. And remember, when you feel like you don’t have enough time to breathe, that’s when it’s essential to make the time.
Colleen McGinnis, PsyD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and owner of the Center for Conscious Healing in Middletown. Her specialties include couples counseling, trauma, self-harm behaviors and chronic suicidality. For information, call 302-376-6144.